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6/25/2 Q&A: Joe Dante


Joe Dante and a friend.

Asunder Press recently had the opportunity to interview movie director Joe Dante (The Burbs, Gremlins, The Second Civil War). Here is a transcript of the interview.

Lance Vargas (LV): Your films often feature people in situations where their own devices or actions have turned against them, what is it about these situations that allows you to project them so accurately in your films and why are you drawn to them?

Joe Dante (JD): I could say that I face these situations everyday in my own life but that wouldn't be true (laughs). I don't know that it is a conscious choice on my part. I find that I am drawn to certain material and then there is other material that I am drawn to that I need to reinterpret in my own way. I don't really give a lot of conscious thought to thematic consistency. I find that by looking back at my work that certain themes and devices appear throughout them with no conscious effort on my part.

LV: You are well-known for casting prolific character actors like Robert Picardo and Dick Miller in your films. What is the place of actors such as these in a modern film industry that seems so fixated on celebrity?

JD: I have actually done very few pictures with quote-unquote movie stars. Most of the pictures that I have done have been populated almost entirely by character actors. I grew up in the era when movies and television shows from the '40s and '50s there were many people who were famous in Hollywood for playing judges and doctors and lawyers. I grew up with a lot of affection for seeing the same people over and over. When I was lucky enough to work with any of them I would of course jump at the chance and use them whenever possible. I did Scott Brady's last picture. I did Jesse White's last picture. A lot of people do their last pictures with me! But I think it's a very difficult world right now for character actors in Hollywood because so much of the work has gone to Canada. There is so much less work and so much less opportunity for actors to develop a specialty and develop a recognition factor that people could do effortlessly in the studio system where people were under contract and appearing constantly in movies and seen by people who went to the movies often and therefore built up a residue of identifiability. it is very hard for an actor to do that now, particularly with somebody just starting out. If someone like James Gandolfini is lucky enough to get the lead in a hit TV series then he will become, from that, a well known character actor. But, if that series had not gone on and only lasted a couple episodes, he would be back down to the bottom, scrambling with a lot of other people who are less well known. So it is a very difficult period for anyone to develop any sort of emblem as a character actor.

LV: You said a lot of acting work is going to Canada; why is that?

JD: It's purely economic. The cost of making a movie in Hollywood has risen. The cost of everything has risen but the Canadian dollar is such that substantial savings can be made by going out of the country. Either to Canada or Australia or New Zealand or places like that. Then of course they hire local actors who make believe they are playing Americans. It doesn't work for me particularly well and the locations don't often work for me if they are supposed to be America and they are not. I think it effects the quality of movies. I don't see it ending anytime soon because, economically, there is no argument to be made. It's much cheaper to do it that way.

LV: So films are becoming like shoes or automobiles?

JD: Very much so. The film companies are now owned by a number of corporations and it's all become bottom line and they want hits and they want profits. The argument is that the reproduction of 42nd St. in Montreal is not going to look like the real 42nd street. And then they will say, 'Do it with CGI then. We don't want to spend the money in new York because it's too expensive.' 5. it seems as though there are a lot of films being made today that rely too much on special effects. What effect will the overuse of computerized effects have on the craft of filmmaking? it has already made quite a bit of an impact. There are special effects in movies that people never even notice. The audience doesn't realize they are effects because now even mundane things can be done in the computer to make the sky a different color to make the grass a different color. "O' Brother Where Art Thou?" is a good example of a movie that was completely reimagined after shooting in the computer. The big problem I see with all this computer stuff is stuntwork. When I went to movies when I was a kid and we saw a spectacular stunt, it was breathtaking because you knew they had actually done it. Now, it's like watching a magician on film. You always know that it is probably not real, because they can edit it. Now when you watch a stunt you always wonder if it's real and most often, its not. There is a sense of immediacy that's lost by the idea that it's all done with tricks and there is nothing real about it.

LV: If you were given the chance to use computerized effects instead of puppetry for the "Gremlins" films would you have?

JD: I doubt that we would have been able to stick with puppetry. I think the content of those two films was formed by what was possible at the time. I think now if they made a "Gremlins" movie, it would be considerably different from the other ones because it would be almost entirely CGI and once you do CGI, there is really no limit to what you can have them do or turn into. I'm not so sure that those two movies are even applicable anymore because there is no way that people would do the amount of puppetry that we did in those pictures. They are really glorified muppet movies and the second one particularly was written around what was possible to do at the time. So, if you at started a new Gremlins movie and you based it on what was possible now, the sky is the limit. I don't even know where you would begin, there is so many possibilities.

LV: "The Second Civil War" is a film that features as one of its themes the sensationalism of national news. How close to that theme do you think we are at present day?

JD: Well there is no doubt about it, the world has changed. But, if you want real prescience about the news business, you just have to go back to Network. When Paddy Chayevsky wrote network, it was considered a far-out satire. Now, it looks like that's the movie the programmers watch when they want to know what to put on television. All the outrageousness has now either already happened or is one step away from happening. So, with "The Second Civil War," while we were making it, we would pick up the newspaper and virtually any subject we were dealing with politically in the movie would be either on the front page or second page. Now, in our post Sept. 11 world, there is a lot of activity in Pakistan, which is where the movie takes place. I think the events outlined in the movie are not less-likely after Sept. 11 they are probably more likely.

LV: Any other themes in "The Second Civil War" close to occurring today? Yes. The movie is basically a satirical broadside of life in the '90s. It really hits on every political level. It was designed to be an equal opportunity offender however. We didn't intend to make a track it was just sort of a skewed view of what life is like politically in America today. The president, who was played by the late Phil Hartman, was kind of a dim bulb. He was actually based on what would have happened if Dan Quayle had been elected. However, I think now, in light of the administrations recent actions that there might be a little identification with the current president.